Legal Eagle launched career defending Japanese war criminals

After World War II, a 25-year-old legal secretary volunteered to help defend some of Japan’s worst war criminals in the “Tokyo Trials.”

Now, at age 95, having only recently completed a long, illustrious legal career, Elaine Fischel recalls those early days and the phone call that changed her life.

“I was working for the Los Angeles District Attorney as a staff secretary and I got this call from somebody I had known from when I worked in Washington, and he said, ‘You wanted to go to law school so this would be a good experience,’,” Fischel told “They said it would be just six months, but it turned out to go on for two and a half years.”

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East was convened at Ichigaya Court, formerly the Imperial Japanese Army HQ building, in Ichigaya, Tokyo.
The International Military Tribunal for the Far East was convened at Ichigaya Court, formerly the Imperial Japanese Army HQ building, in Ichigaya, Tokyo.

The Tokyo Trials, officially known as the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, convened in the former Imperial Japanese Army Headquarters building in April 1946, six months after Japan’s surrender. The trial was ordered by President Truman and General Douglas MacArthur and took place following the Nuremberg Trials. A total of 28 Japanese political and military officials were charged with offenses ranging from aggressive war to war crimes. They were tried by judges and prosecutors from nine different nations.

“The U.S. didn’t want what they called vigilante justice – a ‘we’ll take ‘em out and shoot ‘em’ approach,” said Fischel, who served as the official legal secretary. “It was agreed to give them a proper trial.

“It was hard to think of them as barbarians, as they were all so polite,” she added regarding the defendants. “But there were some very, very bad men on trial.”

Fischel was originally assigned to the prosecution team, but she recognized that the greater challenge lay in working for the men who were responsible for Pearl Harbor, the Rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, and the mass murder of millions of Chinese. Surprisingly, it was her patriotic pride that moved her to take the unpopular assignment and defend the enemy.

The judges of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East
The judges of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East

“I wanted people to know that America is a great country,” she recalled. “We sent our lawyers there to defend the enemy and I don’t think any other country would do that. To me, it was an example of the United States at its best.”

Getting the chance to become familiar with the Japanese leaders changed her perceptions of the enemy. She had hated the Japanese, whom she blamed for the deaths of many of her friends.

“I really thought the Japanese were horrible people,” she recalled. “The turning point was when the little 15-year-old daughter of one of the defendants came to me and asked if she could see her father. From that time onwards, I realized that these men weren’t just evil – they were fathers, husbands, and sons. The lawyers viewed them as clients, not simply war criminals.”

Fischel’s job included visiting the prisoners in their cells to take down their requests. She became a close confidante of General Hideki Tojo, the prime minister who had become the chief of the Imperial Japanese Army General Staff Office.

The defendants.
The defendants.

“He always wanted to see his lawyer so he would often come up to me,” Fischel said. “I had also started horseback riding at the stable where his horses were, so he always asked about that.”

Tojo believed his mission to “make Japan the leader in that part of the world” was righteous, and Japan’s role in the war was one of self-defense.

“He really thought that he had acted to protect his country,” she said.

Fischel also got to know the men who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor, including Navy captain Yasuji Watanabe, the top aide to commander-in-chief Yamamoto Isoroku, who was shot down by U.S. forces in 1943.

View of the Tribunal in session: the bench of judges is on the right, the defendants on the left, and the prosecutors in the back.
View of the Tribunal in session: the bench of judges is on the right, the defendants on the left, and the prosecutors in the back.

The mood in Tokyo was one of devastation and defeat when Fischel arrived, yet she remembers people already working to rebuild. Women and men planted anywhere they could find soil, carried bricks on their shoulders for miles and eventually grew to appreciate the presence of the U.S., who occupied Japan until 1952.

“They went out of their way to be nice to us,” Fischel said. “No one was ever hurt or killed in the occupation and there was no resentment.”

Fischel was invited to parties with Tokyo’s elite but was forbidden from eating their food by strict U.S. guidelines so that they would not appear to be taking from the Japanese. Fischel became a close friend and tennis partner of Emperor Hirohito’s younger brother and Navy captain, Prince Takamatsu.

“I could have stayed and gotten another job but I knew it was an artificial home for an American,” she said. “We were important people, but in the real world, I was just another ordinary person who wanted to go to law school.”

The tribunal was adjourned on November 12, 1948. One defendant was found mentally unfit for trial and charges were dropped. Two others died of natural causes during the trials. Seven of the defendants were sentenced to death and executed in December 1948. One defendant received a seven-year sentence. Tojo received a 20-year sentence and was executed in 1949. The remaining 16 defendants were issued life imprisonment – three died while incarcerated, and the others were pardoned and released in the mid-1950s.

The defendants considered not being executed to be a victory. Shigetarou Shimada, Chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy General Staff, who was sentenced for life but later released, wrote Fischel a letter stating that he “would be in heaven” if it hadn’t been for her work and the work of the legal team.

When Fischel got back to the U.S., the nation had changed. Her own effort to launch a legal career by attending the University of Southern California didn’t get off to a smooth start.

“I had been gone for several years and the war was now over, and the United States had become this consumer nation and we had all things we didn’t have before,” she said. “Many of my friends in law school were already on the G.I. Bill. I was no great scholar. I just wanted to get through.”

Six weeks into her college career, she learned that she had contracted tuberculosis while in Japan. It was two years before she could return to her studies. Almost 10 years later, in 1960, she returned for a visit to Japan with her mother. Her friend Prince Takamatsu said he was proud of her success and that of his own nation.

Japan’s 1947 constitution gave up its right to war and the nation has been under U.S. protection since 1952. In recent years, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has tried to redefine the country’s military role while increasing nationalism and revision of its role as a leader in the world. Last September, the government passed controversial new security laws, which enable Japan to engage in conflicts for self-defense or to aid their allies, including the U.S. Those laws, went into effect this week.

Fischel wrote a book, Defending the Enemy (Bascom Hill Books, 2010), about her experiences in Tokyo. She is working on a second book about her career as a lawyer. She practiced law for 61 years, retiring last year. Many of those years were spent as one of only a few women in a field dominated by men.

“I always saw being a woman as an advantage, it made you stand out,” she said. “I had my own way of doing things – and I’m pretty proud of that.”

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE